INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The man behind the magic of an Indianapolis icon has passed away. He died doing what he loved: the secret work of the L.S. Ayres clock cherub.
People may be familiar with his work, but hardly anyone knew his identity.
His name was Doug Hornberger. He was the one who put the cherub atop the L.S. Ayres clock every Christmas season, putting it up on the night before Thanksgiving and taking it down on Christmas Eve at the corner of Washington and Meridian streets.
It’s a tradition that goes back almost 75 years, to 1947.
Hornberger, 54, had been putting it up for more than half of his life, the last 30 years.
Seeing the bronze cherub was a sure sign to the city that Christmas was coming.
“He loved being a part of it,” said Hornberger’s widow, Jenny. “It was special because he felt special that he was a part of the magic of the season.”
She remembers he loved to watch the coverage afterwards. While his family did know, it was a secret to most everyone else.
Doug was a carpenter by trade. He had planned to retire professionally and step down from his volunteer gig, too.
But on Christmas Eve when taking the cherub down, somehow Hornberger fell. He dropped 30 feet, breaking his spine, ribs and resulting in a brain injury. After weeks of holding on, he passed away early Sunday morning.
“I’m going to miss him terribly, and our family is going to miss him terribly,” Jenny said.
Jenny married him 31 years ago, the year before it all began.
“We took great pride in that he was a part of this city and part of the Circle of Lights,” she said.
Jenny isn’t even sure how it began, likely connected to when he was helping build Circle Centre Mall.
The guardian of the cherub the rest of the year has been Downtown Indy Inc. for the last 26 years.
“Doug was an unsung hero for our community. We’re so saddened by this,” said Bob Schultz, vice president of marketing and communications.
Every year, Doug would skip out of his family’s Christmas Eve party to bring the cherub down under cover of darkness, before coming home to help Jenny put the gifts around the tree.
It should be no surprise for someone so connected to an Indianapolis holiday tradition that he liked to make Christmas a big deal and always bought a few extra gifts for his three kids.
But it was his gift of time to the city that means so much to longtime residents.
“He has certainly been a true hero behind the scenes, a champion,” Schultz said. “There’s so many people like that in our community who steps us, who finds a way, to contribute without ever getting recognized. This has been Doug.”
Schultz said year after year Doug would call up and volunteer yet again.
His passing is still raw and fresh for the Hornberger family. But next year, they want the cherub back in its familiar place.
“I hope they find someone that does just as good of a job as he did,” Jenny said.
Every year, Doug would bring the cherub home, clean it, then coordinate its delivery with Downtown Indy to a special location in the Eiteljorg Museum. With the recent restoration work on the clock, it is now being stored by the Indiana Landmarks nonprofit.
The cherub is owned by the city of Indianapolis.
When the building was sold in the early 1990s, the cherub was moved elsewhere and missed at least one year before it was brought back with great excitement in 1994.